Friday, May 4, 2012

...And Fire in the Sky

We are coming to some text contained only in Luke. According to Luke, after the Transfiguration, Jesus exorcised a demon from a boy when Jesus' Disciples could not do so, told His Disciples that the greatest person was the least one among them (Luke 9:46-48), and said that anyone who was not against them was for them (Luke 9:49-50). From there, Luke ventures into unique territory...

...And Fire in the Sky
Sure, Jesus was about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, etc. But that sentiment was not ad infinitum. There was a day coming, a day of Judgement, when forgiveness and the other cheek would no longer be offered. It was a day that God had had picked out since the beginning of time, all according to plan, but arbitrary none the less. Modern Christianity seems a little divided, between not believing that Judgement Day will come anytime soon, and believing that Judgement Day is imminent. In this study, we will take a quick look at a passage which skirts both forgiveness and condemnation.

We begin with Luke 9:51:
As the time approached for Him to be taken up to Heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. NIV
This is a key verse for synchronization of the Gospels. According to the Synoptic Gospels, this is the point where Jesus set His sights on going to Jerusalem for the first, last, and only time since He had recruited the Disciples. According to the Gospel of John, this would be the fifth and final entry into Jerusalem (the preceding four were John 2:13, John 5:1, John 7, and John 10:22-23). But, you know how it is with repeated visits, for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of those times probably just blended into one memory. ;-)

Anyway, with Jerusalem as the goal, Jesus sent some people to prepare a Samaritan town along their planned route for His arrival, but the townspeople rejected Jesus coming there when they heard that He had planned to continue to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-53). The Samaritans, despite essentially sharing the same religion as the Jews, regarded their Temple on Mount Gerizim to be The Temple, as opposed to the one in Jerusalem. So we can understand why there would be some inhospitable hostility at the notion of Jesus going onto Jerusalem.

In Luke 9:54-56, we see how the news of the rejection is taken:
When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from Heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village. NIV
First, we should consider the idea of calling down fire from Heaven. This is not a new concept. God had rained down burning sulfur from Heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24). Later, at Elijah's request, God had rained down fire from Heaven to kill over a hundred men (2 Kings 1:9-18).

So this is a Biblically consistent idea, but not a reality consistent one. It comes from a time when Heaven was thought to be the realm above the celestial ceiling that we gazed upon in the night and day. But really we are just a little blue marble, moving in the vastness of our solar system, which is poised in our gargantuan galaxy, which is situated in an incomprehensibly large universe. That makes the concept of anything raining down from a Heaven above laughable, other than meteorites, comets, and our own space junk.

As you can see, Jesus rebuked James and John for suggesting immediate divine punishment, but what exactly was that rebuke? It is not likely to have been a revelation that "Heaven" was not above them, given the Biblical view. Some people might think that this was an example of Jesus' mercy, or that Jesus' was rebuking their spirit of condemnation and retaliation. I do not think so.

Instead, Jesus' rebuke is more likely to be due to the fact that the Disciples were not following Jesus' own orders. Back when He had sent the Disciples out on their First Mission, He told them exactly what to do when a town rejected them: shake the dust off their feet as a testimony against that town (Luke 9:4-5). What was that testimony for? Luke 10:8-12 would later make clear what Matthew had stated earlier: that testimony was the ultimate condemnation for that entire town, which would be enacted at Judgement Day; resulting in a fate much worse than fire raining from Heaven. So Jesus' rebuke was probably not against the spirit of their desires, but rather a reminder that they should let God handle vengeance, and that He would do just that very soon.


  1. Ah, I see. Because in Luke 10:8-12, Jesus says that for towns where feet are dusted off:

    "I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town."

    Yep, Jesus was not very nice.
    Thanx for Sunday School again.

  2. You are very welcome, Sabio. Jesus really is not as advertised... ;-)

  3. Hey WF. What did it mean to shake the dust off your feet in 1st century Palestine? I would be sure that it had cultural significance (I don't know what). I would speculate that it could mean to symbolically leave it behind them e.g. saying that they will not carry the rejection with them.

    Does Jesus pronounce an ultimate condemnation for that town? Or does he simply state the inevitable consequence of their rejection of the message? As far as I can tell, Jesus does not condemn anyone in any of the gospels but he does warn them and then allow them to experience the inevitable consequences of their actions (or failure to act) as he instructed the disciples to do. As people have power and free will, is it not right that they also get to deal with the consequences of that? Does that make God not very nice? If I don't turn up for work, I'll get fired. That's a just the reality of employment, it's not my boss condemning or being cruel just the inevitable outcome of my poor choice.

    Also, the Greek word for heaven also means sky or air. So the implications are that fire came from out of the air rather than from another cosmic realm. Implications also with Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God...

    I agree that Jesus really is not as advertised but then I never trust adverts anyway. Even if the bible is absolute truth, no-one has the absolute interpretation on that truth - although many claim to. ;-)

    Enjoy the journey!

  4. Hi Sam, and welcome to the blog! Please feel free to comment any time. Somebody needs to keep me in line. :-)

    I am a little squeezed for time, so I apologize for a curt answers here. Please feel free to ask if something is not clear.

    Yes, the Greek for heaven does mean sky. Old thinking was that the sky was a solid covering, thus the sky "firmament" in the Genesis creation. This is relationship is still retained in at least a few languages, where the word for ceiling is the same as, or from the same root as, the word for sky. Passages in Hebrew also speak of things coming "down from Heaven," like Deuteronomy 26:15, 2 Kings 1:10, etc.

    As for your earlier argument, I would have to agree that consequences are rendered for actions, or lack thereof. In an ideal justice, I am guessing you would agree that those consequences are in proportion to those actions. However, life proves unfair. Would God's justice also prove unfair in that aspect? Then there are also many passages in the Gospels, particularly in John (such as this one), which suggest predetermined destiny, which makes your own actions irrelevant.

    I apologize if I overreach here. I do not know your background, and there are lots of different Christianity versions out there. Please bear with me as I get to know you better.

    Cheers, and thanks for the comment!

  5. Thanks for the reply.

    I would not want to equate consequences with justice in any way. As you point out, reality proves that consequences are in no way proportional to actions. However when it comes to God's justice I really wouldn't claim anything. The big problem is that throughout church history (including today) people have preached a vengeful God who demands justice in order to scare people into believing - it suited their agenda to interpret the bible in this way. This makes it harder for us to understand what it actually says on the subject (there are at least 7 different credible theories about hell from respected scholars for starters). Predestination is another one - it suits people to make that interpretation (as they can abdicate responsibility), I just don't read it that way. I think God always gives us choices and allows us to deal with the consequences.

    As for my background. I have a firm faith and I believe the bible to be true. However I think that the church is guilty of gross negligence in the way that it has handled it both as literature and its message.
    I am not a scholar but firmly believe that there must be consistency between my interpretation of the bible, the nature of God, the teaching of Jesus and my experience of reality. If it doesn't add up I have probably misunderstood something and as ever I'll happily stand corrected!


  6. Sam, I applaud you for coming up with your own take on the New Testament (NT) as opposed to just accepting the doctrine of a denomination. Surely, most denominations err from time to time.

    I wonder, do you think that it is odd that there are seven credible theories on Hell? I sure do. Jesus spoke more specifically of Hell than He did Heaven. That could be what influenced some pulpits towards the Gospel of vengeance... :-)

    Well, Sam, I hope you enjoy the challenges you will find here, and I hope my words are not too abrasive. I am certain that I do not have all of the answers, but I, too, seem to have a very self-consistent view of the Scripture from my perspective. But I could just be fooling myself. ;-)

    Cheers, and thanks for the comment.